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posted by hubie on Tuesday April 02, @01:48AM   Printer-friendly

While adults might be spending the weekend trying to remember where they have hidden a hoard of Easter eggs, the black-capped chickadee has no trouble recalling where its treats are stashed. Now researchers have discovered why: the diminutive birds create a barcode-like memory each time they stash food.

Black-capped chickadees are known for tucking food away during the warmer months – with some estimates suggesting a single bird can hide up to 500,000 food items a year. But more remarkable still is their reliability in finding the morsels again.

Now researchers say they have unpicked the mechanism behind the feat. Writing in the journal Cell scientists in the US report how they gave chickadees sporadic access to sunflower seeds within an arena featuring more than 120 locations where food could be stashed.

The behaviour of the birds and the activity at each cache site – be it the storage of food, retrieval of food or checks on a stash – were recorded on video.

The team used an implanted probe in the brain of each bird to record the activity of neurons in its hippocampus – a brain structure crucial for memory formation.

The results show that each time a bird stashed seeds, even if it was in the same location, a different combination of neurons fired in its hippocampus, resulting in a barcode-like pattern of activity.

The same "barcode" was observed when the morsel was retrieved as for when it was cached.

The barcodes were distinct from place cells – neurons in the hippocampus known to be involved in the formation of memories involving specific locations. "The two overlapped randomly so that neurons could be neither, either, or both," said Dr Selmaan Chettih of Columbia University's Zuckerman Institute, first author of the study.

[...] "These results suggest that the barcode represents a specific episodic experience, unique in place and time in the chickadee's life," the researchers report.

Journal Reference:
Selmaan N. Chettih et al., Barcoding of episodic memories in the hippocampus of a food-caching bird, Cell, Published:March 29, 2024 DOI:

Original Submission

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  • (Score: 4, Funny) by mhajicek on Tuesday April 02, @01:59AM (1 child)

    by mhajicek (51) on Tuesday April 02, @01:59AM (#1351283)

    They're using the same system I use for milling cutter inventory.

    The spacelike surfaces of time foliations can have a cusp at the surface of discontinuity. - P. Hajicek
    • (Score: 5, Interesting) by JoeMerchant on Tuesday April 02, @01:39PM

      by JoeMerchant (3937) on Tuesday April 02, @01:39PM (#1351342)

      Well, instead of ink on labels, the researchers are seeing neural activity (likely recorded by a single electrode) over time, which they're calling a "bar code" but in reality they're getting a time-series representation of what's happening in 3D around the probe.

      For a couple of decades now, there has been a "repeating music" theory of both neural processing / decision making and memory storage. The different layers of neural processing take a set of inputs which cause the present layer to react in a certain (often repeating) pattern. That firing pattern then - eventually - triggers the next layer to start firing its own pattern and so on until you start activating motor neurons, or encode a memory, etc. When memory is involved, something (quite amazing) "looks up" the appropriate memory which is recalled as a similar (just ask a collection of eye-witnesses: it's not exact) firing pattern which then gets incorporated into whatever activity called up that memory's chorus of decisions eventually triggering the motor responses.

      So, these researchers managed to plant a probe somewhere near the chickadee's memory center and observed similar firing patterns during memory storage and recall. Cool.

      What's more amazing to me than the human brain, which has roughly as many neurons as there are stars in the Milky Way, are creatures like wasps which manage all their complex behaviors from optical and smell based 3D flight navigation to nest building etc. on 5000 neurons or less. Then we can consider what sperm whales might be doing with over 6x the brain mass of humans...

      🌻🌻 []
  • (Score: 1) by khallow on Tuesday April 02, @02:49AM (2 children)

    by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Tuesday April 02, @02:49AM (#1351292) Journal

    The behaviour of the birds and the activity at each cache site – be it the storage of food, retrieval of food or checks on a stash – were recorded on video.

    What happens when they check on a stash, and it's not there? Wonder if they have a way of keeping track of which hiding spots get busted?

    • (Score: 4, Informative) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 02, @03:12AM (1 child)

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 02, @03:12AM (#1351294)

      They try other spots? Some do remember which spots are empty among other things. []

      When retrieving food, they remember which sites have been emptied, either by them or by robbers, to avoid fruitless searching.

      In one study western scrub jays were allowed to learn that grubs were perishable whereas peanuts were long-lasting. They were then given grubs and peanuts to cache. If they had free access to their stores, they ate the grubs first, before they went bad. If the jays were prevented from reaching their stores until after the grubs had spoiled, they went only to the cached peanuts and did not visit the grub caches.

      And astonishingly, birds can re-evaluate their food caches on the fly. Magpies were given blue and red food pellets to hide, and then were confined. The researchers then replaced the cached blue pellets with blue beads - but only if the birds were released to retrieve the food later that day. If the magpies were not allowed to retrieve caches until the next day, then red pellets were exchanged for red beads. After experiencing that blue pellets became inedible the same day and red ones the following day, the magpies sought out only red pellets if they were released to retrieve caches on the same day, and only blue pellets if retrieving food on the following day. Evidently they remembered not only where they hid food, but what it was and when they hid it. []

      The researchers found that if a Eurasian jay is caching and hears but does not see another bird nearby it will hide its cache in the less noisy substrate (for this study, sand rather than gravel). This is presumably done to avoid drawing unwanted attention from potential thieves that might then try to view the location of the cache. []

      Even more impressively, she found that the jays also paid attention to who happened to be around when they cached their food and how that impacted the safety of the cache. If a crow cached its food and knew that another crow was observing it, it was likely to go back at a later stage and move the cache—but it depended on who was in the audience.

      “They only do it if the onlooker is a threat,” says Clayton. “If the onlooker is a mate with whom they share caches, they don't bother to do it.”

      • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 02, @03:56PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 02, @03:56PM (#1351358)

        Sounds like bird memory includes garbage collection...